Review: The Mirror (2014)

The Mirror ought not be confused with, Tarkovsky’s The Mirror; or in the horror genre: Oculus, which is great, nor with Mirrors, which is not. While the title and motif does not smack of originality there is a bit of worth to find in this British fright film.

The first thing that perspective viewers should be mindful of is that it is a found footage film. Found footage as an approach is one that offers opportunity but usually is used as a shortcut to lazy filmmaking – laziness squared. The rare instances of brilliance and the attractive aspect of low budgets keep this approach popular but frequently uninspired. This film is not one of those.

The Mirror concerns itself with three London university students who are entering a contest where entrants are asked to submit videos of the supernatural. The best one receiving a cash prize. Thus, the setup for the approach but this film finds some interesting things to do with it.

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Being in the found footage realm brings with it some cursory tropes in the opening act that must be borne. It is worth sticking out the slow burn, the mostly unsuccessful comedy and improvised dialogue, and machinations of setting up all the film equipment.

Thankfully, this is not a film that is reliant on slight visions in the corners of frames but rather the performances of its cast. Jemma Dallender, Joshua Dickinson, and Nate Fallows are all excellent. Particularly Dickinson who is the first to be affected, and thus takes the mantle of the lead. The drama of this story, the boyfriend-girlfriend-best friend triad is at the heart of this tale, it is what the story’s motivations and reactions hinge on, and having believable and likable characters in the positions antagonist, protagonist, doubter, and joker is a rare treat for those familiar with the genre.

One of the usual holes that comes with the found footage territory is filled in after the fact. It’s not entirely convincing, but ultimately things stay quite plausible. The third act concludes with quite a bit of oomph.

the-mirror

Most refreshingly of all this film succeeds by removing some footage leaving some implied supernatural elements but nothing explicit, all implicit. Another thing this film doesn’t fall prey to is that it goes for it. Too many times after so slow a build the audience is left with the feeling that “That just wasn’t enough.” This does not leave you shortchanged at all.

The Mirror doesn’t reinvent the wheel but explores familiar terrain with a slightly canted vantage point that makes it engaging and chilling in appropriate doses. It’s not as shocking a move as it once was, but it does succeed in part because of the lack of scoring on the film.

7/10

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Mini-Review: Europa Report

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Europa Report

Found footage as a technique is one that has been talked about ad nauseum, by myself included. Usually, it is the shortcomings that make us take more notice. However, we should not turn a blind eye to those films that do implement the technique well. This is one of those films. This is a film that has minimalist chills and scares that isn’t the slickest space-bound story this year, but has its strong points, moments of terror, moments of character, and a very good ensemble at its disposal. It also takes a sci-fi tale just slightly beyond the current limits of science, but not that far into the distant future.

8/10

61 Days of Halloween: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Introduction

An introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween as well as past films discussed can be found here.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

To kick off this year I figure I’d go with a film I know and like, one I would gladly revisit anew for the purposes of this piece. The first thing that should be mentioned with regards to this film and myself is that I was fairly young when it first came out, and I first viewed it. Therefore, I fell for the marketing ploy hook, line and sinker; meaning, I fell into the trap that this was real footage. That made my first viewing of the film particularly intense, and perhaps the most affecting fright I ever felt.

Between that time and when I revisited it anew, I learned the truth. I came full circle with my reaction. At first, of course, I was quite angry. However, when it came time for me to see it again I took it as it really was- as fiction. I would’ve likely seen through the ruse the first time had I looked into the film more, but I hadn’t. This was one of the few real instances one can have of “seeing it again for the first time.” I knew a lot of the beats and took it all in, and it’s impressive how well it works, especially the performances. Due to the fact that there’s a brief period of expository information, and much walking and arguing, it can be easy to miss the set-ups and escalation.

I won’t spend too much time discussing it as the progenitor of many found footage films since, save to say that a lot of the shots are clear (barring the running sequences of course) and there’s escalation, pay-off, focus on character/performance, and, perhaps most importantly, it cares about explaining where the footage came from and why it was shot.

It’s a film that mixes sources of footage and has a respect for the process of filmmaking. It’s intelligent enough to be clearly edited, but it doesn’t go too far. Far too often in new-age found footage there’s too much “Hey, look this is real raw footage!” scenes clogging up the first act. By switching cameras and stocks the film spices up the beginning without wasting too much time. Having come full circle with it, it’s a film I’ve really come to admire a whole lot. It’s films like this one that make me come back to the found footage approach as tired and low-percentage as it’s been. The Blair Witch Project is a truly great film, that I just had to add to my collection. Being lost can be truly terrifying whether something is after you or not, few films exploit it as acutely as this one.

Paranormal Activity 4 and the Found Footage Problem

This year saw another installation in the Paranormal Activity series. I will not bemoan the perpetuation of the series. I understand that. They cost virtually no money and the profit margins have been fairly huge. As a business decision, it’s a no brainer.

When writing about the first installment of this series, removing the marketing scheme which was brilliant and the hoopla, I complained it was like a surprise symphony.

I have not given up on the series entirely and what I find odd is that each film has done something, in a particular section of the film, that if removed (as if that were possible) and combined with another section of another installment, would make a whole enjoyable horror film.

The main issue that this series has confronted in the sequels is that it hasn’t broken far enough away from the formula that the initial film established. If one looks at any lengthy horror series almost any of them will have a film that bucks the trend. Now, of course, that could backfire but at least it’s an attempt to shake things up.

What part three does best is have payoffs and a fairly good climax, but the build-up as per usual is fairly mind-numbing. In this recent installation certain motifs and twists are introduced, but it ultimately builds to something we’ve all seen before. Whether you’re a fan of the series or not, it’s not a progressive move.

Even purists couldn’t argue that the Halloween and Friday the 13th series kept trying to up the ante and find new avenues by which to lead into their new tales. What I can give to the first part is that it does catch you off guard, but the set-ups for the very modest scares are are too long, this film at least progressed (to an extent) the visual aesthetic.

Part of the dereliction of the series can be attributed to fear of rocking the boat, but the other part hinges on the found footage element. More often than not the found footage approach is used as a crutch rather than a license, or a challenge, to be more creative.

In four, I was very close to liking it, but they felt beholden to the formula.

Ultimately, how vital either this series or implementation of the found footage technique will be how varied, creative and unique the footage sources are. The image quality can be degraded but an over-abundence of static, uncut images is not modernizing; it’s regression to the advent of sound, if you’ll allow the hyperbole.

Cameras are now ubiquitous accessories, so there is much untrod ground in this series and the approach. It must be trod if found footage is not to die by atrophy.

Mini-Review Round-Up September 2012

I had quite a review drought to end 2011 so I think the remedy for this kind of post would be to have the post be cumulative monthly. Therefore, after each qualifying film a short write-up will be added to the monthly post. The mini-reviews will be used to discuss Netflix and other home video screenings. Theatrical releases will get full reviews, or another kind of write-up as per my recent shift in focus.

For a guide to what scores mean go here.

Note: Apologies for this post being late. Also, I am weighing what a cut-off should be for films that have has no US release date past. As for now they are all eligible. Some films viewed last month are listed here instead.

[REC] 3: Genesis

This is a prime example of having to go where the movie takes you and not judging it based on what you wanted or expected it to be. I have already expressed how much I love what [REC] 2 did for that series. When you hear that this one is going to be a prequel you assume, “Great, it’ll be about the patient zero.” The connection is more tenuous than that. However, what you do get in this [REC] tale is humor, great horror, action, effects and gore and more theological blanks filled in than before. Whether or not part 4 can, and will, be the conclusion this series needs/deserves remains to be seen, but this film is what it wants to be: a very strong, fairly stand-alone piece that contributes to a larger narrative.

8/10

Spud

This is a South African film of some acclaim, which I sought a foreign region DVD of since its US distribution is more doubtful the further from its initial domestic release we get. Spud was nominated for six South African Film and Television Awards (the foreign award is something I may touch upon in November) and an adaptation of a famous novel series. The film stars Troye Sivan (most well known from YouTube or Wolverine) and John Cleese. The film sets as a backdrop the momentous events of 1990 and the release of Nelson Mandela, but what it focuses mainly on is a funny, occasionally touching, tale that’s a dawn of awareness, and coming out of one’s shell. It’s an appropriately episodic tale, that moves well for the most part and features great, surprising and fitting songs as well.

7/10

V/H/S

Yes, any anthology film by its very nature will have its ups and downs. You as a viewer will connect more with one piece or another, one section or another will be more well-executed or intriguing, especially if there are different writer(s) and/or director(s) handling each portion. This year I’ve taken to watching a lot more anthologies, which proliferate in horror more so than most genres. It has moments which are few and far between, set-ups are too long making it structurally askew in segments and in toto, acting is scarce; the frame of the story is fairly poor. This dereliction of pace and structure makes the two hour total running time seem nearly double that.

For a frame of reference here are brief comparisons to other anthologies so you know where I’m coming from: From a Whisper to a Scream has a stand-out segment, this does not; Creepshow has a brilliant frame, this does not. V/H/S seems to seek a unified tonality and aesthetic that it doesn’t quite achieve, Tales from the Hood does. Theatre Bizarre is wildly inconsistent, this is fairly consistent in its terribleness.

1/10

Amors Baller

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Amors Baller, aside from the way that it handles the Swedish/Norwiegian dynamic, is that it puts football (soccer) out front as the key to a boy (Kåre Hedebrant, Let the Right One In) winning over his new crush. While the junior tournament plays a major part, it’s a setting that doesn’t take up as much screentime and the results doesn’t factor in as much towards the end as you might expect. It ends up being more about relationships and friendship. It’s a funny, heartfelt and quick-moving film.

7/10

The Hidden Face

What is most interesting about The Hidden Face is what it does structurally. There’s an inventiveness to a surprising revelation made that allows for it to play with perspective and narrative point-of-view in very creative ways. There is a bit of steam it loses in trying to amplify every single odd moment that needs clarifying after the break, but it remains a very haunting, odd and twisted horror tale. It’s one that is definitely worth seeking out.

7/10

Nimmermeer

One of my first thoughts upon seeing Nimmermeer was how is Toke Constantin Hebbeln, the director of this film, a name I only now have just heard. Now, granted since this 2006 hour-long film he’s made other shorts and just last month released a feature called Shores of Hope in Germany. Regardless, it’s not only the narrative but the cinematography, the staging and the penetrating emotion of this film, which oozes magical realism, that really makes it standout. It’s told like a fairy tale replete with narration but in a context that is very real and immediate. Odd things happen and are not explained away. The story is what it is and it’s at the service of its protagonist and its audience in dramatically, beautifully rendering its message. Leonard Proxauf, who later starred in The White Ribbon, is great in this film.

10/10

Penumbra

What Penumbra attempts to do is something I can definitely appreciate. How it goes about trying to do it is what I really have a problem with. It overplays its hand in some regards and is a bit too broad in the portrayal of its protagonist, her dialogue a bit too blunt; not to mention the scenes that set-up the gotcha ending that only play more annoyingly once everything is revealed. It’s an interesting examination of the Spanish-Argentine dynamic but many other recent co-productions layer horror, colonial antagonism and modern Latin America’s socioeconomic climate better than this does, combine that with its failings as a horror film and it becomes quite bothersome indeed.

4/10

Vorstadtkrokodile 2 and Vorstadtkrokodile 3: Freunde Fur Immer

Perhaps one of the most interesting things that one can start learning or realizing when you obtain films from other regions is that various film industries world-wide are not too different from Hollywood, for better and worse. What we in the US get in art houses are the more erudite, obviously artistic films from overseas. If you look at trades when they report on international bureaucratic/business-related controversies art versus commerce comes up. Essentially, we get the independents from overseas. Next time you watch a foreign film pay attention to the credits and see how many production companies, governmental agency logos and other corporate logos pop up in the opening credits. But the major studios have presences overseas, and even without that each country has its own brand of genre cinema, which is generally made for domestic consumption. Subtitles aren’t found on all foreign-made DVDs and many times only languages of neighboring nations apply.

However, globalization is here and many films are seeking to attain some popularity in the home video market abroad by including more and more subtitles.

Which brings me around to the Vorstadtkrokodile movies. Or as they’re called in English The Crocodiles.

This version is a recent German trilogy based on a popular children’s novel, which I believe was even translated to English at one point. Not unlike American trilogies this series raced to the multiplexes with releases in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Such that the second installment feels a little flimsy and all over the place. There’s some cool fantasy elements, some good jokes but the characters seem to be in stasis. Also similar to American movies, a musician-turned-actor is in the mix; Fabi Halbig drummer from the popular band Killerpilze was recruited to play one of the main roles. Also, not unlike American films Nick Romeo Reimann, one of the latter additions to Die Wilden Kerle (The Wild Soccer Bunch) goes immediately from that series and takes the lead in this film.

Now, all that commentary may sound cynical but they’re just facts. What occurs in the third film is a very pleasant surprise. The story is far more unified. It starts light and frivolous and gets serious. There’s great comic relief and it connects back to the first film. It closes a circle and consciously concludes the series. Just taking a few series by example at the very least these series come fast and furious and know when it’s time to close. It’s a warm and heartfelt conclusion that takes some outlandish plotlines to real and honest places emotionally and give the trilogy great closure.

Reimann, now moving on to other projects, seems destined to continue finding work and may even transition seamlessly into adult roles. It’s a bit early yet, but considering his steady participation in two series, totaling six films, with increased emotional demands in each successive film; drawing a parallel between him and Daniel Radcliffe is not far-fetched.

4/10 and 8/10

Pan Negro

Francesc Colomer in Black Bread (Massa d’Or Produccions) Spains Official Selection not yet distributed in the US.

This was a film that featured previously on The Movie Rat during last year’s post about the Oscar Foreign Film Submission Process. It was a gutsy choice to submit this film over the likes of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, but I applaud gutsy choices such as Dogtooth. That and the fact that Villaronga is a director I’ve seen and like previously made me intrigued by this film.

One thing that’s a double-edged sword about it being Spain’s submission last year is its indigenous nature. It’s a film set in the the Catalan region and deals greatly with the Spanish Civil War and the aftermath thereof. It layers in horror elements, legend, drama, politics and coming-of-age with deft and not much bluntness. One’s familiarity with the vaguest aspects of the conflict will be aided greatly in viewing it.

The story divides itself neatly and the section whose title alludes to a later scene is the strongest.

7/10

Asterix and the Vikings

Asterix and the Vikings (M6 Films)

This is a movie that I have a rather unusual relationship with. I actually didn’t know about this fairly recent animated rendition of Asterix until I was in Orlando earlier this year. In Epcot, there was a book of the film and I got it. The book renders the movie fairly well and considering that I as a fan of Asterix was fairly disappointed in the live-action version I was excited.

What it really goes to show is that putting production elements in place: music, dialogue, voice actors, the different animation techniques and effects employed made the movie so much more immersive than I imagined. From the book it seemed like standard fare: fun bordering on cute. The film that the book represents is a very fully realized version of the tale and is highly recommended to fans of this beloved character.

10/10

61 Days of Halloween: Paranormal Activity

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity is the kind of movie that generates so much hype that people are likely to end up on either extreme with regards to their opinion of the film. There are definitely kudos to be given to Paramount and their marketing scheme for this film. That, and that alone about this film, is pure genius and I am sure it made many more people want to see this film than otherwise would’ve wanted to – myself included. The expectations were then heightened by hyperbolic reviews like “scariest of decade” and references to “scaring the living hell out of” people.

As ingenious as it is, and one can’t really dispute that, it is ultimately a wolf in sheep’s clothing, meaning if you’ve seen The Blair Witch Project or one of its many first person knock-offs over the last 10 years then you’ve seen Paranormal Activity. This has a somewhat more definitive ending than most but even still it ends up being ultimately ineffective as whole.

It is undeniable that there is a sense of dread and foreboding throughout, after a certain point, but it is much too subdued for a while. There is much anticipation, and while the subtlety is to be appreciated, there isn’t enough escalation of incidents throughout. Many of the first few recorded events are very minor. In my opinion, a more incessant film out this year was a The Haunting in Connecticut. One might dispute the merits of where that story goes but it is incessant, you might call it cliché but no one is calling this film original.

It’s only 86 minutes long, and not only does it seem longer, but even while being that short it manages to be repetitive. There are several fights about stopping the taping, not buying a Ouija board and whether or not to contact a demonologist. Almost each and every incident needs to be reviewed on video or in audio and they feel it necessary for the audience as well as the characters because the shots aren’t clear, or the incident perhaps too subtle. So, in being redundant in its two most vital aspects, verbally and visually; it is doomed to fail.

While found footage, an updated cinéma vérité style, might more aptly be called progeny of the YouTube age, and believe me there is nothing wrong with that, as I note in another article, what it does create and perpetuate is bad framing. Framing is being turned into a lost art; however, it is fine if it exists through most of this film but there a moments in this film where you would have preferred a clearer shot of something even if that something was the book of demonic illustrations the likes of which we’ve seen in myriad horror films.

While this film cannot be knocked for keeping a consistent level of tension that level is far too low, and never really escalated. It’s a flat-liner, which is unforgivable. The acting is passable but not going to sink or save this film unlike its godfather The Blair Witch Project, which is elevated and believable due to the strength of the performances.

Ultimately, the good that will come from this film is from the marketing. While they tried to make the film seem like a real event with no opening title and closing title sequence, I doubt with the internet as ubiquitous as it is now that many people believe that as they did 10 years ago. However, the legacy it will leave is due completely to people wanting to see it due to buzz. I wouldn’t doubt if a similar tactic was used again and we can only hope it’s selling a better product.

3/10

61 Days of Halloween: The Last Exorcism

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

The Last Exorcism

I thought of a (American) football analogy as I was watching The Last Exorcism as the most apt description of the film. This film reminds me of a team driving down the field to win the game and taking the ball to the opposing one-yard line and then throwing an interception, or to put it otherwise, it’s a film that comes real close to doing something special but ruins it at the end.

The first thing that absolutely has to be said is that the cast of this film is just absolutely outstanding, pretty much pick a cast member and you weren’t likely to find a better fit for the part. Everyone knows who they are what the role demands and how to deliver it in spades, and this goes down to the smallest roles. It is indeed a rare treat to see acting of this caliber in a horror movie and it is most of what propels this film to the edge of greatness before it plummets of a cliff terribly. It is worth viewing for the performances alone.

The second thing this film does very well is that is convincingly portrays its story in a documentary/cinéma vérité style. It opens with a lot of exposition through questions and the thoughts of our protagonist Rev. Cotton Marcus. Then it morphs from Q & A mode to recording things as they happen.

The cinematography throughout manages to be rather good and economical in its movement, despite the ever-present handheld images. It is only on the rare occasion that things get wild and visual information is hard to interpret.

It’s like the metaphor above implies, the film does a lot right but it really botches it with its ending and in truth most if not all the weaknesses that drag it down are story-related.

While it is very effective, at times, for horror films to have their protagonists be non-believers this one takes it a bit too far and has Rev. Marcus steadfastly disbelieve what his eyes are seeing for far too long such that it’s out of character because a man that smart can’t be that stubborn for that long.

He believes there is no possession and continues to even though they have recordings of Nell (Ashley Bell) having a conversation with a person unknown in Latin, a language they have established she cannot speak. Nell also picks up the camera at one point and tapes herself attacking livestock. It’s never made clear whether they watched the footage, the ways the characters act towards the end make you think they did not. Yet the camera is found damaged and bloodied, they know she used it but they didn’t check the footage? It’s the first thing a cameraman would do.

Then there is the end where there are a few twists one of which is major and we see coming the other which we really don’t. The second of which is truly the extraneous, one in which the film is trying to be a little too clever for its own good. Also, the end does raise up a few more questions and is a bit frantic and the one place where things can be lost and that’s where you can’t afford to.

This is a film that has so much going for it on the technical end, but it was all in service to a story that could’ve been more tautly rendered and more well-told. Such a shame.

5/10

Mini-Review Round-Up May 2012

I had quite a review drought to end 2011 so I think the remedy for this kind of post would be to have the post be cumulative monthly. Therefore, after each qualifying film a short write-up will be added to the monthly post. The mini-reviews will be used to discuss Netflix and other home video screenings. Theatrical releases will get full reviews.

For a guide to what scores mean go here.

From Time to Time

Kwayedza Kureya, Alex Etel and Eliza Bennett in From Time to Time (Freestyle Digital Media)

This is a film that I saw a little bit ago and I struggled with whether I’d qualify it for this year’s BAM Awards or just leave it in the Gray Area. Typically, I go by US release date (so long as I had a legitimate chance to see it), should a film have not had a US release date (namely only released overseas, or seen in a festival, etc.) it’s qualified in the year viewed. With regards to From Time to Time, I knew that its actual vintage was a few years old and it was released in the UK some time back, however, it only his US home video very recently. Technically, that is is its US release since it didn’t have a theatrical run, so there you have it.

This is a very interesting ghost drama, which has a few interesting things going in its favor: first, it cuts through time with great facility and creates a British gothic tale with the ease of Magical Realism. This stripping down of the typical pretensions of supernatural tales making the acceptance of these other-worldly facts commonplace allows the film to dwell in a more dramatic and intriguing milieu. Second, as clearly intimated above this film deals in two periods but makes them both intriguing and vital and blends them wonderfully. Lastly, this film features very strong performances most notably by the under-utilized Alex Etel, last seen by me in Sea Horse; Maggie Smith, whom at this point could benefit any and every film in creation and Carice Van Houten, whom viewers of Game of Thrones may recognize.

This is an intriguing film that is worth looking for on Netflix or other home video resources.

8/10

Chronicle

Dane DeHaan in Chronicle (20th Century Fox)

Since I viewed this film on a plane it was easy and not distracting to take notes on an iPhone, but I will try to keep these comments brief as the review is supposed to be “mini.” Having said that, this was a film I heard a lot about and I love the fact that it is divisive. I had a lot of stumbling blocks to overcome in this one, but seeing elements enacted as opposed to just hearing about them are two completely different things.

This being a found footage film there are “cheats,” inasmuch as it’s not always the same source camera providing the footage, but as events escalate you’ll see why it’s possible, you just get no hint as to who put it all together. That’s a minor concern regarding the handling of technique.

In fact, the only other quibble I have has to do with Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) who is a blogger, thus she too obsessively records things. It’s a bit convenient but mostly the film works in the found footage milieu because it remains tremendously reflexive, and it has to. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) feels compelled to record his life due to his abusive father (a wonderfully malignant villain with few parallels), it clearly continues after the mysterious inciting incident.

Perhaps what is most brilliant and moving about the film is that it creates a sense of identification immediately and it builds from there. It’s not a case of likability but rather understanding. It gives characters powers, and inherently responsibilities, they’re not necessarily equipped to cope with and shows you what they do.

Yes, there is a slightly Jackass, slight YouTube voyeuristic quality to certain scenes inherent in the found footage approach but things to do come back that seemed as if they didn’t fit, and the seemingly frivolous is sublimated quickly. Through it all it remains a character study. It’s a film that does not get overly-concerned with its technique to the detriment of its plot or personages.

Clearly, the performances need to be really strong for a film of this kind to work. That is the case with Michael B. Jordan as Steve, who convincingly plays the winning, popular, untouchable jock but also conveys some hidden depths when allowed to. However, the true standout is Dane DeHaan who is asked to deal with far more range in a film of this kind than you’d expect and is magnetic and captivating in all facets of his character. The scripting shows a certain amount of restraint in many of his scenes and intonation and expression have to convey a lot and he does.

There’s an air of mystery to the story even after the inciting incident as you learn with the characters but are still not overly-inundated with facts.

The sound mix is rather effective especially as it counterbalances with certain moments of dead silence paired with powerful images. The visual effects aren’t as flashy as some other films but very strong.

I tend to try and avoid things that can be construed as pull quotes but the film did get quick a few visceral, nearly unconscious reactions from me I laughed, I was was on the verge of tears a few times and my jaw literally dropped at least once.

I have the few small reservations mentioned above but many prejudices I had coming in vanished entirely and I came away resoundingly impressed with this film.

9/10

Corpo Celeste

Yle Vianello in Corpo Celeste (Film Movement)

I have previously discussed the benefits of programs like Film Movement. This film is their most recent offering.

What is most interesting about Corpo Celeste is that it comments through its narrative or visuals on any number of topics but always does so in an interesting, thoughtful and compelling way it is never didactic, pedagogic or heavy-handed. This is key with themes such as coming of age, religion, politics, family and nationalism (to name a few) being discussed. Most of the reason the film can do this is that all of these things are discussed personally and visually. They barely need to be elucidated. When dialogue is employed to convey the touched-upon themes it is used sparingly and tightly.

The personal approach keeps a film that might be overly aloof rather cool and connected. One of the more interesting things about it is the approach the film takes in bringing its protagonist to the fore. The first few images, scenes even you rarely see Marta alone, she is in crowd scenes and crowded dinner tables and gatherings. Our knowledge the story is to be about her allows us to get a glimpse of her world and her not really seeing a place in yet, hence she’s coming of age. She soon comes further and further into focus and in some way identification is already established.

The film features a tremendously natural performance by Yle Vianello, which enables you to connect to the film not only through her character but through any facet you see fit. The two major ways to connect to the film are either as a coming-of-age tale or a spiritual journey. Many of us have been through either, if not both, so closely examining these two major journeys in one protagonist makes it quite effective.

This is a really good film that is worth your while. The DVD also features the Academy Award nominated short Raju, which I saw earlier.

8/10

Hick

Chloe Grace Moretz in Hick (Phase 4 Films)

Hick is a resoundingly disappointing experience on a number of levels. One reason this is so is that Derick Martini, the director of this film, crafted a wonderful film a few years back entitled Lymelife. It was one of my favorite films of the year in question, while some of those same motifs and actors that made that film work are back in this film there’s little else that binds the two. Part of the issue with this film is it’s a case of novelist acting as screenwriter backfiring, it can be a wonderful thing, but here it’s a detriment. The film does not move well; the denouement is massive; the amount of coincidence; the lack of clear motivation on the part of certain characters; seemingly extraneous elements, and awkwardly staged situations are some of those reasons. The lead in the film is Chloe Grace Moretz, who as previous honors have indicated is very talented, yet even her excellent performance cannot salvage this film.

What it reminded me of was Leolo gone wrong. You have a very strange home life and an adolescent seeking to escape. The world isn’t very firmly established neither is the protagonist’s desire, not at first. She clearly is haunted by the loss of a sibling but that’s not clear imemdiately. She has a goal but it quickly becomes clear she’ll need a new one, and how she finds it and why is underdeveloped and is a tremendous example of deus ex machina. The pace of the film is also off and it feels a lot longer than it is. Hick is one worth avoiding.

4/10

First Position

Gaya Bommer Yemini and Aran Bell in First Position (Sundance Selects)

I can’t claim to be an aficionado but I am a fan of dance. Through my production company I sponsor a dance competition, so while not an insider I do know my fair share about the world this film describes. What I was somewhat fearful of was that this film would serve as a glorified infomercial for YAGP (Youth America Grand Prix), which is the world’s largest youth dance competition.

All those fears are soon allayed. The necessary information is divulged such that the layman understands the enormity and the gravity of the competition and the controversy regarding any competition is vaguely hinted at, but mostly the film is an introduction to just how competitive the world of dance is, and also a glimpse into how dedicated these artists must be from a very young age.

Yet any film can only get so far on the facts alone. Where First Position succeeds is that it profiles dancers from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds and also with varying aesthetic philosophies. The film is structured very dramatically such that the performances with the highest stakes appear latest in the cut and the flow from performer to performer is just right and well-ordered.

What starts as an informative, introductory doc soon turns quite the emotional experience that gets you very invested in the outcome. It’s a great film sure to please fans of film and dance alike.

10/10

Citizen Gangster

Scott Speedman in Citizen Gangster (IFC Films)

This an interesting story about a man, Eddie Boyd (Scott Speedman), in post-WW II Canada who frustrated with his job and trying to get by embarks on a career as a bank robber. The film interestingly has a quick and effective genesis. The pathology and inspiration is properly established in a short time such that through the course of the film you follow the protagonist further and further past the point of no return. It’s the case of an anti-hero plot in as much as it does at least create a sense of identification if not sympathy.

The film also has a tremendous amount of technical prowess that helps create the world of the story. The cinematography offers a tremendous balance between stark, pale sunlit exteriors and blown-out interiors. When you combine this with the production design which was very concerted on white interiors with one accent to break up the monotony.

When you consider some of the scoring and performances there is quite a lot working for this film. The only thing that really holds it back in anyway is that from about the mid-point on the pace does become very stilted, which is especially noticeable towards the climax and denouement. Having said all that, this is a film that should be getting more notice and I’m glad to have seen it. As indicated above, it’s especially strong in compartmental areas but is intriguing enough in its narrative, especially for those unfamiliar with the details of the story upon which it is based, to sustain interest.

7/10

Hospitalité

Kanji Furutachi, Bryerly Long, Kenji Yamauchi, Kiki Sugino, Kumi Hirodo and Eriko Ono in Hospitalité (Film Movement)

Comedy just may be the most culturally specific genre of them all. In my experience, each culture has their own precepts it brings to comedy. Granted there are some things that are universally embraced as funny, but cinematic aesthetics, narrative constructs and indigenous commonalities often color how these tropes are conveyed. Which is a very roundabout way of saying that certain films purported to be comedies have struck me with confusion, surprise, and consternation on occasion. American comedy being typically rather broad is rather accessible; British comedy being somewhat dry and witty I’ve always been drawn too and being Brazilian I have a grounding there in where the jokes are coming from.

Hospitalité is a Japanese film, which is quite funny at times simply because it relies almost wholly on situations, characters and the element of surprise to deliver its humor. Where it loses a bit of its steam is that it could use a bit of tightening up in length and towards the end. The power plays exhibited are necessary but perhaps a bit drawn out there too. In essence, the dramatic elements of the narrative are overplayed as there isn’t a lot of follow through.

You may find it more funny than I did, and to be fair there are effective dramatic elements and pieces of commentary being made, but as it is a situation that is seemingly simple and does follow the house-guest-from-hell mold rather there’s just a certain deliberateness and gravitas to it all that drains it a bit.

6/10

Michael

Michael Fuith in Michael (Films du Losange)

I generally remain vague about plot descriptions in my reviews. Philosophically I believe that if you happened upon my review you know enough about the film and you’re just looking for some further information. With a film such as Michael one does need to be forewarned: while not sensationalistic or exploitative this film does chronicle about five months in the life of a pedophile. You will be disturbed and affected by it: I guarantee it. What is most effective is that the film does so almost exclusively through implication.

The film edit of the film is tremendous and much of the dialogue on reflection implies so much more than is said. One example of how the film communicates horrible consequences while doing little is a simple visual: Michael and Wolfgang, the child he has captive, are setting up a bunk bed in his room. That scene has made its point and hits you in the gut.

What makes the film most harrowing is the humanistic portrait painted of Michael. With an act as awful as child abuse, whether of a physical or sexual nature, some films overplay their hands. Meaning they feel the need to make the antagonist over-the-top and borderline cartoony as if to re-emphasize the inherent villainy and cruelty of their actions. Yet more often than not that kind of writing takes a viewer out of the moment. This film takes things as mundane as decorating a Christmas tree, talking to a neighbor or a haircut and tinges them with malignancy and implications that belie the simplicity of the line spoken or the action taken.

You also have in this film two performances that make this film work and they are those of Michael Fuith, who used his awkwardness to endearing effect in Rammbock, but here is intimidating, frightening, awkward and charming as needed. Then there’s also David Rauchenberger, who while not in the film a tremendous lot, has the unenviable task of playing the victim who as times dour, at times detached, at times a child and also rebellious.

The craftsmanship of the film is what truly makes it work. There’s one scene that really doesn’t jibe with the restraint, and the ending is one I stewed on but decided it is earned, as a whole other film would start had it continued.

8/10

Review- The Devil Inside

Suzan Crowley in The Devil Inside (Paramount Insurge)

The possession, or exorcism film if you prefer, is not likely the most retreaded but definitely one of the more tired subgenres that horror has to offer. Despite the fact that I chose a film of this ilk as one of the best horror films last year it is an area wherein filmmakers have struggled as of late to cover any new ground whatsoever.

Interestingly this film also acts as a found footage/mockumentary. Unlike some I will not allow, whenever possible, one film to forever change my perception of a given subgenre. Found footage like anything else has its pros and cons; the biggest pro being immediacy and one of the biggest cons being uninspired cinematography. However, the found footage technique alone is not why this film fails just as it’s not the only reason The Blair Witch Project, [REC] and Lake Mungo work. The way it decides to use the technique is a failing but it’s not the only one.

Some examples besides the obvious are cutting around certain incidents rather than watching them happen live. Another is actually going the other direction than the subgenre usually goes, it’s actually over-edited and over-produced at times such that any chance it has of creating anything like simulacrum is squandered quickly.

The performances in the film are a bit too inconsistent, which is unfortunate because many of the incidents in the film are very low concept and restrained so more is needed from the actors. Typically Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth, the sometimes rogue priests, are fine but on occasion they were written into situations where they couldn’t avoid being unintentionally humorous.

Those characters in and of themselves are fine though, they make sense, the cameraman Michael (Ionut Grama), however, is an unnecessary disruption. His only functions as a character are to be a nuisance and act as cynic when Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade), the subject of the supposed doc, can serve that function.

It’s easy to appreciate the efforts this film makes to legitimize exorcism and possession both through scientific and theological means to those who would have trouble suspending disbelief. The effort can’t be reproached that badly it’s the clunkiness of how facts are introduced, finer points are debated and lastly church bureaucracy reveals itself that hurts the film’s credibility more than anything.

If you were to look at this film in terms of a meal it’d be one with myriad amuse bouche, hors d’œuvres and appetizers but not much of a main course. The attraction of an exorcism film is…exorcisms. There’s the hospital encounter and one later, both a brief and somewhat anti-climcatic. However, that’s not unusual many of the countless progeny of The Exorcist are underwhelming in this manner. I will admit that for most of its duration it’s a watchable bad film that even features a strong performance by Suzan Crowley. What then makes this movie so terrible?

It is the ending. A few things need to be said about it: first, even though I heard stories about how bad it was before I saw it, it was actually worst than advertised. Second, I refrain from re-writing in reviews but what angered me most was that I could feel the potential for a good 20-30 minutes coming, most could, there’s a satisfying conclusion to this film (good enough to redeem the whole thing) in some other dimension perhaps but sadly we weren’t shown it.

2/10

Review- Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity 2 (Paramount)

If it’s even possible this installment of Paranormal Activity is even worse and more anti-climactic than its progenitor. It is a film that takes tedium to delirious new heights (or depths) and is the sad side effect, the grotesque underbelly of the Effect of YouTube.

Why I say this is that it is a bamboozling experience. It looks terrible and therefore expects you to accept not only substandard imagery but also expects you to riveted by a film which is most lacking in incident. While I can credit the first installment with having a rather consistent strain of tension that never quite amps things up, this film is nowhere near as fortunate, or even as enjoyable, as that mess.

The first thing that will quickly grate on your nerves is that this film takes the Rule of Three to the Nth power. Nearly every day in the story, of which there are many, starts with the same half-dozen establishing shots. Few of which ever lead to an incident almost none of which ever leads to anything of real consequence.

These shots artificially inflate the running time of a film which ought not reach feature film status. Now there may have been other scenes shot that ended up on the cutting room floor that would’ve been more interesting but we’ll never know.

There is a reason that the New Wave hated establishing shots. They are more often than not unnecessary. There is something reassuring, not disconcerting, about the predictability in the pattern of the edit remaining the same when no new information is conveyed through the shots. We know what the location is always, the film doesn’t leave the house, so these shots are unnecessary and don’t advance the story in any way, shape or form.

Furthermore it is a film that handcuffs itself by being beholden to the surveillance camera angle to capture the action with. Yet this film like the previous one feels no need to pay lip-service to how someone found and cut together the footage. There is just a title that is meant to fool the more gullible element of the audience into thinking this really happened.

Lack of incident isn’t a cardinal sin in and of itself, there are plenty of things that can create tension when the big scare isn’t happening but this film either chooses not to utilize (score) or doesn’t utilize them effectively (cast), such that the film just becomes and exercise in banality and the cinematic equivalent of a “surprise symphony” in which the filmmakers will nearly lull the audience to sleep and then a rare, big shock will rouse the audience to life. Sadly, not all the major scares are effective. Only one can be called truly effective and more than one are laughable.

To carry off a mockumentary style you need pristine acting like you got in The Last Exorcism and even that fell short. Here you get Acting with a capital A, which is the antithesis of being naturalistic which is paramount when the bill of goods you’re trying to sell is one of veracity. For some sense of the quality of thespian you have in this film the best in the cast are twins William Juan and Jackson Xenia Prieto, as Hunter, the baby; Vivis as Martine and the dog.

Pace is the child of Necessity in film. What pace does the story necessitate to be effective? This is an equation in which the film does not have the answer. It plays an overly-methodical hand thinking it is constantly, but slowly, ratcheting things up but it is not.

It is a film quite nearly fails to comprehend the function of a scene. What came to mind was Hitchcock’s example of building suspense. You show a bomb under a table and cut to the conversation above. You periodically cut to the bomb counting down anew and regardless of what the conversation is about suspense is built. This film treats its entire narrative as one scene and doesn’t set up plot points but one or two major incidents such that the journey is nearly pointless and it ends up being a waiting game, which goes back to not knowing the function of a scene. Each scene needs a purpose. Each scene needs to progress the film. Not every moment of this film is essential. Not every scene moves the story, nearly none of them build suspense.

It is a poorly told, wasteful exercise in narrative cinema.

1/10

Paranormal Activity 2 is available on DVD and Blu-Ray today.